Although it perhaps petered out just a little in the final round of games, the group stage of the 2014 World Cup has been one to remember.
A majority of teams displaying a readiness to play proactively has meant that goals have not been in short supply, with memorable moments and matches plentiful. What has also made it a fine first two weeks of the World Cup is the number of top players who have brought their best form to Brazil.
Amid much competition, in a tournament dominated by attacking play, here are the five players whose stars have shone brightest so far.
No player had more pressure on his shoulders coming into this World Cup than Neymar. In a functional Brazil team lacking the breathtaking quality of the past, Neymar carries the heavy weight of expectations of a huge nation to be the difference maker and lead Brazil to its first ever World Cup triumph on home soil. Thus far he has shown he relishes such dependence on his young shoulders. Despite having his position in the side adjusted, the Barcelona man has come up with decisive moments in both of Brazil’s wins, scoring two goals each against Croatia and Cameroon.
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Perhaps the only man who can relate to the pressure on Neymar is his Barcelona teammate, Messi. So often negatively compared to compatriot Diego Maradona, Messi knows that, perhaps unfairly, he will never be seen in the same light unless he can similarly inspire his country to the World Cup. So far, Argentina have not been at their best, with a porous defense and attack that has yet found its full fluidity, and is now weakened by the injury to forward Sergio Aguero, who is out indefinitely. Messi has provided a moment of breathtaking ability in each of Argentina’s matches so far and he may have to continue to do so, while adding to his four goals, if his team is to go all the way.
James Rodríguez (Colombia)
Much of the talk heading into the World Cup surrounding Colombia concentrated on the loss of prolific striker Radamel Falcao to injury. Falcao has been quickly forgotten, however, with his Monaco teammate perhaps showing who the real Colombian star is. Indeed, the absence of Falcao has helped Rodríguez to flourish. With Colombia switching to a single striker, the 22-year-old has been handed the creative reins to a talented team in a central role. He has more than justified that responsibility, creating chances aplenty as well as scoring a goal in each group game. His impish finish after coming on as a substitute against Japan epitomized the spirit and quality of both his and Colombia’s play so far.
Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
At the age of 30, most pacy forwards have to find a way to deal with the fact that their main attribute is on the decline. Robben has thus far shown in this World Cup that such logic emphatically does not apply to him. After an early part to his career hampered by injuries, Robben now looks fitter and sharper than ever. In an unfamiliar central role, the Bayern Munich man has coupled his physical attributes with greater maturity and a real intelligence with his movement. Robben’s pace in behind terrorized holders Spain in a thrilling first game and he has maintained that form to take his total in the World Cup so far to three goals to put the agony of his missed chance in the 2010 final firmly behind him.
Karim Benzema (France)
For a player of his ability, Benzema’s record for his country has been somewhat underwhelming. Yet after his best season yet for Real Madrid and with the absence of Franck Ribery perhaps encouraging him to take greater responsibility on his shoulders, the 26-year-old has been outstanding so far in Brazil. Clinical in getting two goals, and unlucky not to get a hat-trick, against Honduras, Benzema then flourished in a left-sided role against Switzerland, terrorizing the Swiss defense and picking up two assists and a further goal. No player has more shots on target or more key passes than Benzema at this World Cup, emphasizing that he is the attacking fulcrum for this French side.